‘1969: A Year in Tonga. Book 2: Volunteer: Survive or Thrive?’ is Roger Cowell’s second book. It resumes the story of his adventures in the Kingdom of Tonga, where he once served as a volunteer.
After being given only ten days to acclimatise, Roger begins his work as a teacher in a small primary school in the village of Houma. As he tries to share his knowledge with the children, he realizes that it’s not as simple as it initially appeared. So Roger learns…to teach, to understand the surrounding world, and to be an adult in a foreign culture. Despite his ups and downs, despite misunderstandings and the times of terrible loneliness, he gradually stops being a complete stranger and starts to fit into the close-knit community. He socializes with fellow volunteers, makes new friends, and creates a strong bond with his host family.
This book is quite different from its predecessor. The first volume is a pleasure to read. The beginning of Roger Cowell’s great adventure (this is what you can call a one-year-long sojourn in another country; especially if you are only 18 years old when it happens) fascinates and enthrals to such a degree that you simply don’t want to put the book down. And you think it gets even more interesting as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.
To begin with, this volume – which can most kindly be described as mediocre – resembles a traditional journal. It is constructed from the author’s original diary entries and arranged chronologically, so in theory you are given a chance to ‘experience’ life in Tonga day by day and month by month. This would be absolutely wonderful if the narratives weren’t so…dull, brief, and sparse on details. Many of the ‘chapters’ end before they even start. Cowell’s cursoriness results in the stories being extremely sketchy. They appear to be only partially finished and therefore feel incomplete and undeveloped. What is more, quite a few of them recount the same – or almost the same – events and occurrences, thus making the memoir seem very repetitive and monotonous.
As for the Kingdom of Tonga, it is not an overly prominent subject. There are only few decent descriptions and virtually no information concerning the country’s culture, customs, or traditions. Of course, one does not have to write an anthropological analysis of an island society, nevertheless it would be nice to be able to ‘discover’ such faraway land and get to know it from a foreigner’s point of view. However, I shall say that Roger Cowell was a young man at the time of his service, so his lack of observational skills can be fully justified.
On a brighter note, the book doesn’t fail to deliver what a good historical memoir should. It gives you a unique glimpse of the past, bringing back memories and unraveling the secrets of an almost ancient world. This amazing journey is an adventure in itself. And, let me tell you, this is a journey oh-so worth setting out on.
As I don’t want to lie, I won’t say I recommend this book wholeheartedly. True, it serves as a literary time machine, and as such it provides a lot of enjoyment. But overall, it is disappointing. At least in my opinion. You may think otherwise. And this is why I’ll leave the judgement to you.